Ron Schreiner has worked in military intelligence -- speaking Russian, for the South Dakota state government in various departments, and in the former Soviet Union for our federal government.
Today, he is still more involved than most in volunteering in his home town of Fort Pierre.
“Same resume - you just highlight different parts,” said Schreiner, 81. After a lustrous life of working in multiple occupations, he is still involved — often leading many volunteer organizations.
Even so, “I’ve cut back on memberships. It’s somebody else’s turn; new thoughts, new energies.”
“My job right now is to be here when the mayor gets home, with a glass of wine for her, an unfiltered ear, and some idea of what I’m going to make for dinner,” said Schreiner of his marriage to Fort Pierre Mayor Gloria Hanson. “It’s a neat relationship; we do well together.”
Schreiner has a way of telling his life in a way that it might sound like he fell into opportunities. Yet, at moments, a touch of seriousness betrays him, as one can tell each of those hard-fought accomplishments led to the next.
Raised in Aberdeen, Schreiner joined the Air Force in 1962. He passed not only one, but all four career-directing entry tests, and was streamlined through nine months of intensive training to become a linguist of Russian. While stationed in Germany, he learned much. Then, stationed in Pakistan, the war-like stress was enough for him to not re-enlist, thus leaving the Air Force in 1966. The military was not for him, yet his personality, his working for Intelligence, and his stories could have been some factors in his son becoming a Navy Seal who is currently stationed in The Pentagon.
Schreiner finished college with a wildlife biology degree.
“What could be better than doing every day what you like doing on your own,” Schreiner said. He then took business courses, earning a bachelor’s in business administration. “It was the advent of computers. The state of South Dakota had just bought an IBM360 computer, which now you have more ability on your cellphone - the world has changed so much.”
He helped program the state-of-the-art computer for the South Dakota Department of Finance and Management. Though there were a dozen people on the project, the day after a job-well-done office celebration he was called by Governor Frank Farrar who said Schreiner was next needed somewhere else - to help run the state budget. He and one other person did that job, “now there are a bunch of budget people needed,” Schreiner said. “I learned a lot about the Legislature and particularly, the Appropriations Committee.”
His light touch was fun. He would slice up ice cream pies in front of the committee to illustrate what portions of the budget pie was to go to which departments.
“It then was an obvious progression to the fiscal agency of the Department of Health,” Schreiner said.
He must have learned the department’s general needs and workings well, as he became the director of maternal and child health, “though I had zero education, but I knew what it was all about.”
A part of Schreiner is that he is always “looking for a bigger step.” In the mid-1980s, he became the financial director for the Department of Transportation, “from $10 million to $100 million. It was fun, lots of neat issues; was logical with good hard numbers, yet every agency has its own idiosyncrasies,” Schreiner said. “I had some strong feelings on how finances move through government, and made that known.”
When George S. Mickelson started his governorship in 1987, he offered Schreiner the Secretary of Revenue position, “which was the last job I was to have in state government, and it lasted eight years,” Schreiner said.
Schreiner’s voice wavers a bit while talking of April 1993, when Mickelson and seven others, returning from a trip, died in a plane crash.
“I was supposed to be on that trip, but Mickelson had others on it instead. He called me saying, ‘I screwed up. You should have been here. Be in my office tomorrow morning.’ Obviously the morning office conference did not happen.
“Afterward, it was so emotional. Everybody wanted to do the right thing, and were looking for direction,” Schreiner said.
Then, “when Bill Janklow was elected governor, he asked me, ‘How long have you worked here … not counting tomorrow?’ The new governor was bringing in his own top officials, so I looked for any wiggle room, and didn’t find much. Then, I thought this was an opportunity to take a directional change.”
He turned 55 that month, which was then the minimum age for retirement. He had served as the chairman for the South Dakota Retirement System. He had also been the national president of tax people, the Federation of Tax Administrators (FTA). “It was a good education and good preparation,” Schreiner said.
That time in history was the ending of the Cold War, and the breaking up of the
Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) into Russia and other countries.
“The FTA and the State Department were being contacted by the Russians themselves, to see if Russia could look more like us. I had been asking myself if out of the millions of USSR people, couldn’t some not be stuck in the mentality of Communism?,” Schreiner said. “I had a tax background, and was, supposedly, a speaker of Russian. That reality was to slap me in the forehead like stepping on a rake. Kazakhstan had been their Cape Canaveral, if you will, with darned little transparency. Whole communities were not on the map, budgets didn’t appear anywhere, we had to first figure out how to proceed. We almost always worked way too late, from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. We worked until the Russians decided to not do that anymore,” said Schreiner, who was in eastern Europe from January 1995 to December 1999.
Under the USSR., huge collective farms were the rule, with utter inefficiency. “Years before, my brother and I had bought a farm near Gregory; and all of a sudden, I’m an agriculture expert,” joked Schreiner. “We worked on re-organizing some collective farms for a couple of years. In that instance, you could see the problem, and the results out the other side.”
Schreiner witnessed the lack of good, nutritious food. Not as part of the government-owned collective farms, each community would have a “small city of community gardens. People would stay all weekend in a hut to work their plot. They didn’t understand healthy soil, proper fertilization, crop rotation. With no electricity, they used hand pumps or buckets to water, and they had no compost piles -- but they made it work,” Schreiner said.
“When you do something successfully, word gets out. Armenia, and later Moldova, were looking for help with their parliament concerning our three branches of government. I had a legislative background. There were parallels between them and us,” Schreiner said. “I had no feeling of accomplishment in Armenia, but some in Moldova.”
While abroad, he had written down everything in a type of journal. Wherever he lived, he swapped the wooden door for a steel one, and used three deadbolts. His height and clothing stood out. He constantly changed his routes to and fro, walked or driven. Just before millennium’s New Year and the infamously non-eventful Y2K problem, Schreiner was told by the U.S. Embassy to return home.
“I had answered my question that there are people over there not stuck in communism,” Schreiner said. “When I got back to the USA, freedom came rushing back to me. I was not living behind three deadbolts. I thought, ‘you’re old enough. You gave it your best. It’s someone else’s turn.’ I decided that I would be a retired gentleman -- and I have only half of that done.”
He remembers some in the post-USSR struggling to raise food.
“I took everything from that and became a master gardener. During South Dakota State University Extension classes, I was so far away from the rest of the world, from the feeling of not being free.”
He jumped headfirst into helping people, to the point that two years ago he was honored with an award. He had donated over 5,000 volunteer hours to helping people as a Master Gardener, mostly in the Fort Pierre area. He still volunteers, during the summer, often more than 40 hours per week. Part of his teaching others involves compost as an alternative to trash. He said that some of his master gardener friends joke of him as being the “Compost Nazi.”
Schreiner, supposedly retired, is the chairman of the newly formed Fort Pierre Arbor Board, after eight years of heading the Pierre Arbor Board. Ash trees, which will eventually be wiped out by Ash Borer bugs, are being inventoried.
“Fort Pierre has less than 20% of the trees that it should have, compared to Pierre, mostly because of poorer soil,” Schreiner said. He wants to start a tree nursery in Fort Pierre, which would replace and add to the tree numbers, and would help with landscaping the Fort Pierre Bridge Plaza that is to accompany the forthcoming new bridge across the Missouri River.
He is in charge of the Fort Pierre Community Gardens.
“I got my stripes from the Pierre Community Garden. There aren’t very many volunteers, so guess what -- me. Fort Pierre could use one or two more such gardens, though I am not looking for another job. For the first garden, a major funding campaign was used to put funding together at no cost to the taxpayers.”
Schreiner has been a member of the local Extension and South Dakota Parks and Wildlife Foundation boards. He is still a member of the local chapter of Ducks Unlimited, as well as the local chapter of Pheasants Forever. He is also a member of the Fort Pierre American Legion Post 20. He is also on the board of Countryside Hospice. He is also on the Fort Pierre Civic Pride Committee. “There is a time you’ve got to focus. You can’t be everything to everyone,” said Schreiner.